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Montreal World Film Festival, 2004

     Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, born in 1915, has announced more retirements than even Roger Clemens; but this time, with a final feature, Saraband, at the recent 28th Montreal World Film Festival, Bergman really might be through. His December song, both absorbing and more than a bit tedious, is a two-hour, four-character sequel to Bergman’s 1973 Strindbergian psychodrama, Scenes from a Marriage.

     "Several years ago, I got a phone call at my office," said Pia Ehrnvall, Saraband producer, introducing the film at Montreal. She quoted Bergman on the line: "Hey, Pia, I wrote a screenplay, I don’t know if it’s for TV, stage, or the movies. It’s a chamber drama, the set decoration is two chairs only and four actors. Would you like to produce? There’s one condition: if you like it, I have to direct it myself."

     "In 2003, we started shooting on a sound stage in Stockholm," Ehrnvall said, "and the set decoration was far more than four chairs. Bergman started with a few words: ‘You all know what to do. It looks simple but we have our work cut out. This is the very last production that I make. I demand everything from you, and from myself.’"

     It’s thirty years later, and his feuding marrieds from the first film, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), divorced for ages, meet again at Johan’s home in the country. Both have failed as parents (their children, now adults, have moved to foreign lands and no longer speak to them), and Johan, especially proclaims his whole life was a failure. He’s the numb, blighted post-Christian we’ve encountered in several dozen Bergman movies back to the 1950s. Though it’s nostalgic to see Ullmann and Josephson, Bergman icons, reunited on the screen, Saraband falters for being a last-blast retread of what’s been suffered again and again in Bergman. There’s no coda which takes the film, boldy, into new philosophic territory, no epiphanic lightning flash, as Bergman approaches 90. Alas, here’s the same unrelenting world-view: parents and children desperately alienated, God, the father, quiet in the cosmos.

     Saraband was shown Out of Competition at Montreal, but would it have gathered any prizes? Would the Bergman name have swayed voters away from Eran Riklis’s The Syrian Bride, a French-German-Israeli co-production which, most unusual for any film festival, swept all the major awards: the World Competion Grand Prix, the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize, the Ecunemical Jury prize, and the Audience Award. Distributors take note, and Jewish film festivals looking for a popular opening night: The Syrian Bride was loved by all. Almost all. I thought it a bit TVish and didactic in hawking its politically correct attack on the sanctity of man-made borders. The story is interestingly placed, however, in a Druze village in the Golan Heights. Mona, a Druze living within Israel, is engaged to a Syrian TV star, and the movie is a black comedy about the bureaucratic entanglements, both with Israel and Syria, in getting the couple together. Even the UN is brought in, and joins the madcap frustrations. The best film at Montreal? Fatih Akin’s Head-On, previously the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival, and certainly the only masterpiece I’ve seen in 2004. Akin, a Turkish-German, tells a love story of two wild Turks over several continents, beginning, in Germany, with zany screwball comedy and ending, in Istanbul, with heartfelt, affecting melodrama-turned-tragedy.

     And two other works of merit, both at Montreal in their world premieres: Red-Colored Grey Truck, directed by Serbia’s best young screenwriter, Srdjan Kolijevic, is a clever tall tale-road movie set in the first days of the 1991 war. A snarling punk chick from Belgrade and a rube from Bosnia head down the highway in a truck, driving inadvertently into the battle zone. The road warriors are out of their heads, dense Beverly Hillbillies with explosives: a stupid, stupid war. Red Colored Grey Truck is the first Slovenian-Serbian co-production, and Kolijevic is doing something right. He was verbally attacked after the Montreal showing by a Serbian consul from Toronto, accused of pro-Slovenian propaganda. Elephant Shoes, Christos Sourligas’s made-in-Montreal two-hander, a deftly written, delicately acted love story, twelve compact, erotic hours in which an early 30ish couple meet, make love, make most clever talk, and must decide whether they are forever soulmates or, sadly, must part. A little miracle on a $10,000 budget, and talented newcomer actors, Stacie Morgain Lewis and Greg Shamie, steal the audience’s heart.

(September, 2004)


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